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The Eagle has Landed: Mobile Crowdsourcing

The Eagle has Landed: Mobile Crowdsourcing

Txteagle is a social innovation project designed to leverage an underused work force in some of the poorest areas of the world. It does this by distributing small jobs via text messaging in return for small payments. Users can sign up to project and complete tasks such as translating phrases and single words, gathering local data on consumer products or completing market-research surveys. This mobile platform for social innovation is proving a great success. It has recently expanded into 80 countries and is now able to reach 2 billion subscribers. 

In developing countries only 18% of people have access to the Internet, however more than 50% owned a mobile-phone handset at the end of 2009. That number is rapidly growing as mobile services expand further into the developing world. The social innovation provided by Txteagle is how the service harnesses this social group to create a potentially a massive workforce. The project centers around local data gathering. Information that comes from hard to reach communities such as rural African villages or slum dwellers in South America can be of great value to companies trying to provide services to these sectors of society. Texting tasks such as simple translations are economical not only in a business sense but also provides participants with an additional source of income. Participants get paid every time they complete a small task using anairtime compensation platform. Payments are transferred to a user’s phone by a mobile money service, such as the M-PESA system run by Safaricom in Africa, or by providing additional calling credit. This means the service has the added advantage of being able to instantly compensate its users, a significant factor for those subsisting on an average of a couple of dollars a day. 

Txteagle was formed in 2008 by former MIT faculty member Dr. Nathan Eagle and Dr. Ben Olding from Harvard’s Statistics Department. Txteagle has raised funding from top-tier investors that include Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures, Flywheel Ventures and Esther Dyson. Dr. Eagle has previously carried out research at the Santa Fe Institute and NSF-funded start-up NDM Labs into the gathering and analysis of petabytes of data being generated by mobile phone users. Through this academic study, Dr Eagle developed the idea for the business, believing it to be a tool for positive social innovation in developing nations. Nathan Eagle holds three engineering degrees from Stanford University and a PhD from the MIT Media Laboratory. His research involves engineering computational tools, designed to explore how large-scale human behavioral data can be used for social innovation and social good. 

Theoretically Txteagle’s unique platform could be utilized by other agencies needing to analyze data from hard to reach communities in developing nations. NGOs and Aid organizations might use it to gather health and community data. Researchers looking at various aspects of these particular areas of society could make use of it. Hopefully even governments may one day use it to analyze the needs of their citizens. For the moment though Txteagle’s main area of social innovation is the extra income it can generate for billions of people living in poverty. Dr Eagle says, “If we could get a small fraction of a percent of these types of tasks going into rural villages in Africa, not only can we affect the lives of a lot of people, we can impact the GDP of the nation”.

This article originally appeared on Justmeans.com and is republished here with permission.

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Photo credit: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net
By Clare Cunningham, Justmeans News Writer

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21 comments

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1:34PM PST on Nov 21, 2010

If it continues to be used in a good way I'm for it but I believe it has a huge potential for abuse. In communist countries there were generally neighborhod watchers or cadres that spied on people in their neighborhood/village and reported to some central authority greatly increasing control and ultimately fear and disrust, dividing communities. Also even if it is used for marketing research it could have very adverse consequences as it enables businesses especially large multinational corporations to target advertising turning even the remotest areas into consumerist societies where people make poor choices because of ubiquitous, misleading, and very persuasive advertising. Remember the Nestes baby formula controversy from 25 years ago. Women dressed as nurses went into African villages to convince women to use baby formula instead of breast feed. Since the women were dressed as nurses the not well educated village women thought that they were and that they were the voice of authority and had the babies' best interests at heart. However the formula was so expensive that women could not buy enough, would water it down, or not give the baby enough. Meanwhile the mother's milk dried up. Many babies died of malnutrition from purchases of formula made with this very persuasive advertising. Any marketing research, especially if it is tied into advertising for consumer products as most of it is, must be strictly controlled.

5:14PM PST on Nov 18, 2010

Thank you for posting.

1:38PM PST on Nov 18, 2010

Work for impoverished people--yes!

Civil Liberties--yes!

12:51PM PST on Nov 18, 2010

The clause that worries me in this article – aside from the fact that cell phones are a serious health risk – is "even governments may one day use it to analyze the needs of their citizens." Cell phones are also tracking devices that can be used by intelligence agencies to monitor those they consider suspect in some way. As we've seen with the flimsy excuses used to detain Muslims in the U.S., this can easily spiral out of control. Between that and the mountain of research material on cell phones raising a broad range of health concerns, I think we're rushing to embrace this technology far too quickly and recklessly. Find other ways to help poorer countries, like supporting Care2 campaigns!

11:02AM PST on Nov 18, 2010

if it REALLY benefits the poor, I'm all in favor

10:51AM PST on Nov 18, 2010

how innovative

10:50AM PST on Nov 18, 2010

Using modern technology to help those most in need is fantastic

10:14AM PST on Nov 18, 2010

Interesting article.

8:51AM PST on Nov 18, 2010

interesting...

5:05AM PST on Nov 18, 2010

Thanks for the article.

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